There’s a debate raging across the professional world from boardrooms to LinkedIn comment sections: “Are open offices good or bad?” And you’ve likely seen some passionate replies both for and against, as each type of working environment triggers pain points for different types of workers. Both settings have their benefits and drawbacks. Open offices reduce the footprint and therefore cost of a workplace and enable more open collaboration, but they can have a disastrous effect on productivity around focused work. Traditional workplaces offer privacy and the ability to focus and get work done, but they also have an isolating effect that dampens collaboration and strengthens silos. Yet in between these option lies an ideal solution.
We propose a paradigm shift – focus your thinking on the work that is taking place within your walls rather than on the walls (or lack thereof). Instead of choosing between two absolute philosophies towards space, an innovative concept called Activity Based Working (ABW) combines the strengths of both while leaving their weaknesses behind. The idea behind ABW is to gain a deeper understanding of the work that your employees are doing and design a workplace that uniquely supports them with a balance of Me Spaces and We Spaces.
Your workforce is made up of a diverse group of people who perform very different types of work. Take an HR employee who spends most of his time on sensitive phone calls, emails, and in-person conversations. In an open office environment, the lack of privacy is inappropriate for the work they are doing. Their ideal workstation is a private office. Conversely, an employee who travels or works with others the majority of the day may find a fixed, private workstation restrictive while thriving in an open office.
Many employees will fall in the middle of these two extremes. Consider a content writer, someone who spends half her day discussing ideas, interviewing other staff members, and developing outlines collaboratively, then half of her day writing marketing content. Ideally, she would thrive for half the day in an open and informal setting with others, while the rest would be spent in a quiet space where she would be free of distractions to dig in and focus on writing.
By surveying your employees and developing a strong understanding of their working style, you can design a workplace that mixes private offices, cubicles and open office workspaces with assigned and hot seats, unassigned focus spaces, and other types of spaces that support the work your team is doing and minimize friction and stress at an individual level.
The key to successful Activity Based Working is breaking away from cookie-cutter solutions and top-down design to develop an understanding that your organization has unique needs to be met with unique solutions.
Gallup’s employee engagement tracking shows that only about 30% of employees are actively engaged at work, and our research with Leesman to better understand credit union workplaces shows that only about a third of credit union employees feel that their physical workplace supports the work that they are doing. This isn’t a coincidence, but rather a consequence of the fact that the nature of work has dramatically evolved while the physical workplace and workplace policies have struggled to catch up.
The real reason that employers like Google attract the best of the best through their workplaces isn’t the bean bag chairs and napping pods, it’s their ability to understand and support their employees. With the right mindset, this type of workplace is well within your reach. By breaking away from the false dichotomy of the open office debate and developing a solution that uniquely supports your employees through Activity Based Working, you have the ability to take advantage of this situation and create an innovative workplace that not only unlocks a higher level of productivity but attracts the type of high-end talent looking for a place that supports their best performance.